Earlier this week, Bloomberg BETA’s Roy Bahat wrote a post about his views on using the “language of war” in startups. It’s worth a quick read. I wrote back to him and said while it can be crass to use belligerent language, there are probably nationalistic reasons (thinking of companies as nation-states) for why this happens. However, why not speak the language of colonization — yes, another unsavory nationalistic tactic — as a means to discuss strategy, growth, and hopefully winning one’s market? In this light, the language of war connotes a “hard power” of coercion and/or the use of force. Could there be room for the “soft power” of persuasion, public relations, and appealing to hearts and minds instead?
When I wrote back to Roy, he replied, “You should write that.” So, it when on my list, until I just got back to my desk and read the bombshell dropped by The Verge’s Casey Newton, detailing how Uber systematically tried to sabotage Lyft. First, a few things out of the way. This is bad, bad PR. I’m also a fan of Uber, and while I don’t expect any company to always “play by the rules,” this kind of stuff could hurt the arc of the company or, worse, engender an image that they can’t shake. In wanting Uber to succeed, I am hoping they learn from this. (By the way, Verge’s Newton did an amazing job scooping the story; this is the type of investigative work tech blogs should be doing to balance out the optimism of funding announcements and product launches.)
So, we are back to “Hard Power” vs “Soft Power.” The terms were coined and popularized by Harvard’s Joe Nye, a hybrid academic and state department official for many years. Nye’s argument was that as society transforms from materials to information and becomes globalized, a nation’s soft power (favorable policies, culture, attitudes, acceptance, values, etc.) can spread to give those nations a competitive advantage via persuasion instead using the coercive hard power (military/industrial complex, offense, arms trading, etc.). Nye’s world is one in which America should win with its soft power, it’s mindshare, positive PR at scale.
As Roy and I were emailing about this, it become apparent that the leading technology giants — Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc. — all use a mix of hard and soft power in concert. To pick on one, Amazon messes with publishers and authors at times, but then buys Goodreads and Twitch and fans love them. Uber right now is winning, no doubt — and they’re using a mix of hard power (against Lyft) and soft power (reducing traffic, drunk driving, etc.) that make them a complex beast. Whereas Google scaled on the back of the Internet with minimal friction, Uber is a network built on top of real world APIs. Uber is coming into contact with our transportation, food delivery systems, messenger routes, ridesharing, and more. Uber can repulse with its hard power, and win hearts and minds with its soft power. It may be easy to criticize from afar (and many of those critiques are likely to be valid), and while we all may want to see soft power at work, the truth of the matter today is that competition is fierce, resources are scarce, people need to get to Point A to Point B, and hard power still has its place in the real world. Drive accordingly.
“Now, our operation is small, but…there’s a lot of potential for….aggressive expansion.” -The Joker, The Dark Knight [video clip]
Every once in a while, a truly world-class technology company emerges. There’s the scale of Apple, building integrated devices and changing the game each time; there’s Amazon, selling books online as a wedge to selling everything we can imagine; there’s Google, leveraging big data to build the world’s premier information company; and, most recently, Facebook, which is on a long march to bring every human on the Internet and connect them to the people, places, and things that matter to them. Each of these companies operate at massive scale, touch all four corners of the earth.
In a place like Silicon Valley, the only natural question to ask is: What’s the next startup most likely to join the pantheon above? After the past few weeks, the answer is easy: Uber.
After all the chatter around Uber’s most recent fundraising, which valued the company at over $18 billion, the company has demonstrated tremendous dexterity and range in launching a number of high-profile initiatives and moves. Specifically, consider the following timeline:
June 2014: Uber raises over $1 billion, valuing the company at over $18 billion.
August 5, 2014: Uber announces UberPool, empowering riders to share rides based on proximity and destination similarity. (Worth noting many observers feel Uber scooped Lyft’s plans to launch Lyft Line, but now it’s moot as both are up and running.)
August 19, 2014: Uber announces the appointment of David Plouffe to run the company’s public policy and strategy. You may have heard of Plouffe, who in the past simply engineered one of the most famous and successful political campaigns of all time with Barack Obama in 2008.
August 20, 2014: Uber announces a “test” for Corner Store in Washington, DC, a service within the Uber app which allows consumers to order basic sundry items, putting the company on a path to be squarely in competition with initiatives from the likes of Amazon and Google, and many startups like Postmates, Instacart, DoorDash, and others.
Consider, for a moment, the complexity of executing on all of these initiatives within a short period of time. Sure, many of these may have been in the works for months and now ready to showcase in a storm of activity, but the bottom line is Uber is not messing around: It is launching new products quickly and taking an experimental approach to continue to iterate and find product-market fit; it is not going to go into regulatory battles unarmed anymore; and they have a killer BD story to sell to hundreds of consumer mobile apps at scale. Launching with 11 API integrations was likely “taking it easy for Uber,” where 11 partnerships for most well-funded startups may be around that total after years of grinding it out.
A final thought. If hiring is a leading indicator of private company momentum, click here and take a gander at the breadth of jobs Uber is hiring for across the world. I’ll repeat that: Across the world! This is where we start talking about real physical scale. Over the summer holidays, a family member on the east coast earnestly asked me if I thought factors X, Y, or Z could hurt Uber. I thought about them, but ultimately answered with the following: “What will stop it?” Right now, I can’t think of anything.
I am 37. To date, I have been very fortunate not to personally encounter too much tragedy in my life, family, friends. Lately, on Facebook and a bit on Twitter, I have seen people publicly share bits of their bad news. It is hard to read. On a tweet, I’ll open the replies to see how people respond to their IRL friends or Internet friends; on Facebook, I’ll occasionally open up the comment threads to see what people are saying. The phrase I see the most is: “So sorry for your loss.”
I am compelled to write this post because in two instances, I saw this phrase so many times, it stuck with me. Everyone says the same thing, more or less. What can one really say in such a sad situation? Yet, I felt as if something is missing. I know there are some sites and apps out there that anticipated this social media need, but I haven’t seen any in the wild at work. I recall 1000memories was acquired by Ancestry.com, which makes sense.
So, the question I pose is – are we left to just tweets and short comments on Facebook that mostly say “so sorry for your loss”? Is that all the grieving want? Does it make them feel good? Is there anything more we can really say or do? Facebook is just 10 years old and I don’t see it going away anytime soon. There’s tons of debate and rules around what happens to a user’s data when they pass away, but what about an online memorial? Will people be able to attend an Irish Wake of an old friend via virtual reality?
“So sorry for your loss” seems too easy, too short, often devoid of meaning. There must be something better out there, or to be built, something that can be collaborative and last forever. I’d love to hear your opinion about this, to the extent you can share or feel like sharing.
I am a transportation junkie. Years ago, in another life, I took a heavy dose of transportation planning, economics, and policy classes, and had an excellent teacher who turned me onto it. One summer, I actually worked at the Port of Boston — splitting time between the Airport and economic development office, and then container port. This is why I geek out about Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, as well as other ones popping up like Scoot, or even new devices like Boosted Boards — all of these products and services have sprouted up at the same time, driven by mobile devices and the SF Bay Area’s unique (and sad) issues related to outdated and insufficient public transportation.
So, when I heard about Chariot in San Francisco, I got really excited. Make sure to follow @ChariotSF on Twitter if you also geek out about this stuff. It sounds like they’re just starting, but the service is essentially a private shuttle that carries folks between only the Marina and downtown SF. In transport-speak, Chariot offers a point-to-point route where it can reasonably estimate demand at both ends of their inaugural route. For $6 round-trip, Chariot will whisk passengers from the Marina to work downtown and then back, entirely bypassing the public bus system and all the stops those make along the way — assuming those are on time or not filled to the gills. (A friend of a friend on Twitter tried it out, at my request, and reported back that she loved the service and would definitely take it again.) It’s not difficult to envision Chariot, if successful, expanding to Noe Valley (to supplement the J-Church) or other known neighborhoods with enough demand, like Laurel Heights/Village, Inner Sunset, and on and on. If this does take off, expect there to be more “private bus” backlash, but at the same time, nothing can really stop this from happening.
In airline networks, most of the big ones operate with hub-and-spoke models, which lets them handle more passengers, more routes, and (at times) more efficiencies. But, these networks are more complex. Newer airlines, such as JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin, do offer connecting routes, but generally don’t have hubs and instead operate as point-to-point routes. This helps them be efficient, estimate demand (they rarely “oversell” flights), better estimate fuel spend (and hedge fuel risk). Now, if we think about transport options (not including biking or walking) within a city like SF, there are private professional (Uber) and peer-to-peer car services (UberX, Lyft, Sidecar), there are car-sharing options (Getaround, Zipcar), there are public options like Muni cars and SF Muni buses, and there are things like Scoot (scootersharing) and soon to be LeapTransit. In the case of Chariot’s original route selection, people in the Marina have 2-3 options for buses to get downtown.
Now, Chariot fits in between the public option and the more private or peer-to-peer option — and it’s priced in the middle, as well. And, Chariot can just carve out more point-to-point routes and appeal to riders who would be willing to pay more than the average daily fare and have a normal ride to work without all the stops, crowds, and the like. As the city becomes more crowded without adding more public transport inventory, I can see many professionals who live and work in SF willing to pay a bit more for this convenience. Good idea. Raises tough issues, but reality is indifferent. Ultimately, consumers may vote for point-to-point with their feet and fingertips.
Over the course of 2013, if you work in technology (and startups) and live in the Bay Area, you probably noticed a few things. The traffic is getting considerably worse. Public transportation (when it’s working) is more crowded. New buildings and rents are going up. The profits at large, Valley-based technology companies are rising. In fact, if you look around the world, it’s high tech and the Bay Area that are providing the only real source of growth in international markets — hence the flood of all new types of capital engulfing the Bay Area.
Along with it, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is what appears to be a never-ending stream of socio-commentary about how the Bay Area is out of touch, how this is a bubble, how Silicon Valley is the new Wall Street, and so on and so on. I’m not here to argue the merits of these positions, but the angst behind them is very real. On a national level, scores of jobs are not coming back, and many people are unemployed, underwater, in debt, and broken down. On a hyper-local level, the Bay Area is also undergoing massive change, but of a different variety: gentrification, new construction, congestion, rising rents, poor housing turnover, and the list goes on.
There are real problems on a national level, and unfortunately, I don’t know how to solve them — I’ll try to write more on this later in the year. I need to really think about it. But, in terms of the Bay Area, I have identified three (3) huge risks that I believe must be addressed so that the ecosystem can continue to thrive as it has for over 50 years. I’ll be brief here in my prescriptions, since analysis can often just lead to paralysis, but I will also be clear — I believe all three of these issues *must* be addressed and the likely driver for them will be the fortunate titans of the technology industry:
Increased Affordable Housing: The region has plenty of land, but zoning restrictions and other laws make it harder to build new habitations. A large portion of these need to be allocated for affordable housing. I will rest my case by the fact that both Google and Facebook have purchased private property near their campuses with a goal of converting that land into housing units for employees. People are going to continue to rush here because there are so few opportunities elsewhere. I have heard stories of Starbucks baristas who commute over three hours a day to work in the city in order to keep their healthcare.
Unified Public Transit: The ass-backwardness of Caltrain not smoothly interoperating with BART and SF Muni stifles urban agglomeration and puts extra strain on the region and will come back to bite it in the rear, big time. Once affordable housing is increased, how will all these people get around? Not by the current system, that much is true. It’s time the powers in the state come together and expand and unify the systems, increase capacity, and modernize with a heavy hand. Yes, it will inconvenience some people, but the status quo will just eat away at all the gains the region has made.
Increased Arterial Roadways: Improved public transit will relieve some pressure on the system, but the choke points getting in and out of the main city are too narrow to keep up with the demand. They need to be widened. People in Marin should be able to get to the Valley without stopping at lights in the city. People in the East Bay should be able to get to SFO without being choked into two lanes as they meander through the Civic Center.
Three things. If policymakers and the wealthy focused on this, many things would follow. I know there are many, many other problems — and they are real: Prop 13, decline in social services, losing our coastal parks, etc. I don’t mean to diminish them. But, let’s focus on a few from which many things will get better. Three things only. Now, who is going to do this? That’s the billion-dollar question. It will take a just a very small group of people, some tech luminaries who have done well and want to give back, paired with some savvy policy hands who can make sure these visions become a reality. I sincerely hope it happens.
Earlier in September 2013, I wrote a post about the three most significant venture deals for 2013. I was motivated to write it after AngelList finally announced. I was frankly surprised at how often it was read — my posts here aren’t too widely read. The danger in a post like that is that you leave people out (and their deals), but I still stand by the fact that transportation, mobile communications, and the venture industry are going through massive changes, and that companies like Uber, SnapChat, and AngelList make for significant investments in the sense they best represent the changes we see before us. That is not to say, however, that they will be successful. Time will tell…
In this vein, I’ve also been trying to think — What are the sectors where founders and investors got irrationally excited about in 2013, and what are the key themes driving them? Well, I’ve finally answered that question, so here are my thoughts, and yes, I essentially think 2013 is over for new ideas — sorry about that! (I do give honorable mention to “Internet of Things” and anything touching the enterprise stack, mobile or wearables, or the cloud, but those are all mega-secular trends, as they were important in and prior to 2012.)
One, Bitcoins. The allure of an encrypted currency masterminded by an anonymous monikered Japanese hacker is just too bright to ignore. There are just so many fascinating kernels within a Bitcoin, be it the elegance of the math involved in its derivation, the anonymity it affords users through cross-border transactions, the volatility in pricing and limits on the numbers of coins in circulation, the fact that coins must be mined using hidden keys, or the timing of its rise coinciding with a propped-up global economy where the only growing sector is in technology. As a result, investors started placing their Bitcoin bets, a Bitcoin-focused fund was launched, people started buying Bitcoins themselves (I just bought some right now), and it became the talk of Twitter. In researching Bitcoin-related companies for investments, I found three kinds — one, where you can exchange Bitcoins for currency (like Coinbase, OpenCoin, and BitPay), two, where you can trade Bitcoins indirectly for cash-equivalent tender (where I invested), and three, the infrastructure (storage, security, etc.) of the underlying network protocol which drives Bitcoin. Ultimately, what’s most interesting about Bitcoin to me is how the up-and-coming generations are more and more distrusting of institutions, including financial ones, and after the banks helped put us into a mess leading up to 2008 and now are reaping the rewards of being too big to fail, the times scream for another currency abstracted away from the state where people can freely store and exchange funds without the fear of insider trading and adverse risk.
My posts from 2013 on Bitcoin are: (1) The Theatricality & Deception Of Bitcoin [link]; (2) How Five Real Economists Think About Bitcoin [link]; (3) Fred Wilson Thesis On Bitcoin [link]; and (4) *Special mention, this panel included a talk by @Naval on Bitcoin which is my favorite [link]
Two, Drones. Earlier this year, I was listening to Swell in the car and came across a random podcasts talking about the drone industry. Somewhere in the discussion, an expert (who was legit, I remember) said that once drones hit the commercial market, the drone industr will mature over a decade to about an $80bn+ market. Um….Holy shit! That is why investors get so excited about the hardware potential, the corresponding software, and all the business use cases that come with automation like this. Imagine drones surveying crops, traversing mountains, and other types of data collection and surveillance. I would love to learn more about the sensors inside drones (much like phones) as well as the camera technology and software that’s possible with these machines, and how well (or not well) these devices will track with how smartphones evolved.
I don’t have any posts on drones from this year — my bad. But, if you know anyone working on these spaces, please let me know: Drone camera hardware; Drone camera software; Drone operating systems (like Airware); Other physical sensors inside drones, such as weather, location, Bluetooth LE etc.; and Deployment mechanisms on the drones
Three, Bridging Online “Taps” With Offline Logistics. Depending on what city you live in, chances are you’ve now been trained to tap your phone and get a specific service, like a black car, or a car with a pink mustache, a person to bring you a burrito, or your groceries, or someone to clean your car, clean your apartment, or clean your laundry, or ship your boxes, and so forth. Every week, a new service seems to launch that aggregates and organizes freelance labor (those with excess time) to help those who have money but not time. While one may wonder about the unit economics and margins of these businesses across the board, Uber and Lyft are leading the charge here making real revenues and addressing huge markets. A number of companies in these spaces are doing well, such as Postmates and Instacart, and there are some unsavory reasons as to why. I have invested in a few companies in this space, such as Instacart, Gyft, and a few soon-to-be-announced. I’ve also written about a part of the trend here, Recruiting The New Labor Force.
I do want end by sharing one important, sobering note on the last point, as to why these “bridging” companies are able to do so well so quickly…yes, mobile is part of the story, which quickly aggregates demand, and yes, the entrepreneurs are incredible, for sure…But…
The bad news is that the American economy has undergone a massive, massive structural change. The Economist reported that 95% of the economic recovery since the 2008 crisis has gone to 1% of the population. There is a big skills gap between technical jobs and those out of work and their vocational ability. People are stuck in their homes, many of which are either under water, or they don’t want to move and realize gains because the next purchase could put them in the hole based on rising prices. So, people are either out of work (and freelancing), or cannot move, and sometimes, both. “Those jobs aren’t coming back” sums up the situation.
What does this all mean? It means that a large part of the economy is unwittingly engaging in a massive race to the bottom. For instance, you can earn over $30/hour as an Uber driver in the Bay Area. That is outstanding and providing real work opportunities. People who were laid off or can’t find regular work can be Postmates during the day, Lyft drivers at night, and get their laundry taken care of for them by Prim. This race to the bottom has many, many implications. Someone who is unemployed will then have advantages based on their location (“I can be a Prim laundry person in San Francisco, but not San Diego”), or by their automobile (“I can be an UberX driver with my Prius, but I’d need a suitable black car to drive regular Uber”), or by their preference on work time (“I can work as a Postmate every night, when demand is highest”) and so forth. All of these companies are taking advantage of these structural changes to the economy at large and the labor economy specifically.
Now, how long will this last? Studies show more and more people are preferring a freelance style over working at one job from 9-5 daily, but these jobs pay hourly, often without benefits. Rents in cities are going through the roof. Student loan debts are reaching the point where they’re about 2% of what the mortgage crisis booked, and it’s growing. These jobs aren’t also creating more transferrable skills for those who work them, which reduces any economic agglomeration effects in the long-term. One way to think about this in real terms is the private transport market in a city like San Francisco. Now, I want to be clear and say that I’m a happy user of Uber, UberX, and Lyft — all great companies. San Francisco is undergoing a big economic transformation, but while more and more wealth moves from paper to liquid over the next 24 months, the city’s management is already so bloated that there’s little room or political will to improve the city’s poor public transit infrastructure. But, when you have a segment of the population with smartphones and more money than time, and you pair them with people who can hop in a car and supplement their income, you have a new marketplace forming that solves a big problem in the immediate-term but also fundamentally changes the interactions between city residents. In a place like New York, most everyone rides the subway at least somewhere — in San Francisco, the person on the bottom floor of your Mission townhouse could be your Lyft driver when you go out to that startup party in SOMA.
I could go on and on about why this is so important for online-to-offline startups to think about, but you get the idea. What it does mean, in the near-term, is that labor is readily available, and if it can be trained, organized, and delivered in a way that saves other consumers time, there is a potential business to be made. There are swaths of people who need jobs yesterday, and new companies like the ones I’ve listed help create a temporary, soft cushion at what would otherwise be a very rocky bottom of the economy.
I wrote this a few months ago but was thinking about this today, and realized I forgot to post it here…
In 2013, we have seen a reincarnation of “man vs. machine,” except this time, the machines aren’t algorithms — the machine is government. Within a few months, various levels of government across the United States have made headlines with respect to new technologies, products, and services. Unmanned aerial drones, which have a touchy relationship with citizens worldwide already, present complicated scenarios.
The Texas state government, for instance, recently banned drones for most private use; the state of North Carolina is considering a ban on direct sales of Tesla vehicles; Airbnb was deemed illegal in New York state by a judge; ride-sharing startups like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar face constant threats and hurdles as they expand outside of the Bay Area; and of course, there’s Bitcoin, where Mt. Gox suffered a recent Fed crackdown as the most active exchange for the popular crypto-currency. The ways things are going, 3-D printers will be banned because some fanatic will hack software that lets him print a 3-D gun.
The common thread weaving through this trend is that the pace of technology is empowering individuals to actively participate in fundamentally new markets and economies. Even just a few years ago, it wasn’t as easy to buy a fully-electric luxury car and not send part of your income to the local gas station; it wasn’t as easy to earn over twice one’s salary by ditching grocery bagging in favor of providing livery services; it wasn’t as easy to convert cash into liquid digital currencies; it wasn’t as easy to rent out your apartment, or your spare bedroom, or your couch to earn a little extra scratch; and it wasn’t easy to physically print out items at home or send items to others via unmanned aircraft.
This shift comes at a critical time for America. In a sluggish economy slowly recovering from the largest wound since the Great Depression and adjusting to a fundamental, structural change (aka, those jobs aren’t coming back), the country is in desperate need of innovation. I say “desperate” because even with successful innovation, our economy isn’t on an enviable pace for growth. Mega-forces like widening income inequality, crushing debt burdens, and the politically-toxic mismatch between our immigration policy and inability to properly educate children for the jobs needed today combine to form a potent mix of stagnation. In lay terms, if someone is laid off from their job bagging groceries because of online grocery delivery or automated checkout machines, will government also prohibit them from using their car to give a “Lyft” to others for money, or renting out the spare room in their apartment on Airbnb to offset their fixed mortgage rate, or storing some of their savings in Bitcoin after losing most of their 401k savings in the 2008 economic collapse?
It remains to be seen how far governments will go. Laws are made to protect people from harm, but they’re also made by taking into account the interests of special interests who spend billions to lobby the halls of Congress. Innovation like the types cited here directly threaten a range of powerful, incumbent, cash-rich industries who view lobbying costs as a minor line-item expense, the cost of doing business in America. The other side of this coin is that, right now, government regulation that overreaches to the point of suppressing an individual’s ability to earn a living wage is the political equivalent of playing with fire. It’s early, but consumer demand is pointing in a direction where the democratization of access to technologies like electric vehicles, 3-D printers, alternative currencies, and peer-to-peer lending puts more power into peoples’ hands than government can realistically control.
Aggregate consumer demand is distrustful of large institutions, is willing to pay for goods crafted specifically for them, is open to turning their assets into wealth-generating vehicles, and so much more. It’s hard to see how government will try to control this. Alas, it will. There is too much to lose. Perhaps this is why many of the startups listed above (and their investors) have begun to form relationships with local and national politicians, have actively participated in panels nationwide with public officials and commissioners, have hired former politicians and policy analysts to help them anticipate these collisions and actively participate in the lawmaking itself to keep the interests of these startups in mind.
The interests of startups like these are the new “special interests” — in fact, they’re “our special interests” — and they protect much more than the companies doing the legwork — they can protect the future income, livelihood, and social security of the former grocery bagger, and in a country founded on principles of humility and hard work, it would be a shame — perhaps even evil, given the criminally economic circumstances of the last two decades — to not empower consumers and leave consumers unprotected. I’m optimistic startups will be part of the conversation that stitches these new laws and regulations together, and I fundamentally believe it is startups like these and all of us consumers, individually and collectively, that will spark the next waves of innovation, with government enabling it, not restricting it. Let’s hope so.
Lately, I’ve been feeling the urge to write about more personal matters or interests outside of work and technology, topics ranging from music and arts, to politics and foreign affairs, and from culture to parenting. As my blog has matured and I spend more time on it, it’s now mostly about work — which is fine. Occasionally, I’ll put these kind of tweets out on Twitter, but as most people out there expect startups and venture-related stuff, it can feel disjointed. More importantly, the tweets on more sensitive matters could be misinterpreted and would probably benefit from a bit more text and context. I had kept this feeling in the back of my mind, and lately, as I’ve been using @Medium, the software is so clean and fun to use, it’s actually motivated me to write more. I won’t push these Medium posts to Twitter, but if you ever want to visit those collections as they evolve, you can simply visit: https://medium.com/@semil
The Bay Area is in flux, and this has been on my mind for a while. I finally had the time to detail my two cents on how this new structural economic change has enveloped the Bay Area and what it means for folks in the region. See below.
The unraveling of the Enron debacle in 2001 became a symbol of corporate scandals of that era. The effects were so decimating to loyal employees vested in their employers’ retirement plans and public investors, the Federal Government responded with legislation the following year, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX). Originally intended to protect employees and retail investors from cutting-edge white-collar crime, SOX placed onerous requirements on public companies — so onerous, in fact, it has effectively encouraged some of the most high-growth private corporations founded after SOX to remain private much longer, to tap secondary markets to access liquidity, and to file IPO papers after company insiders and private investors reaped the rewards. The result can be seen most recently in the Bay Area, where reports surfaced this week suggesting Facebook’s IPO was mostly responsible for catapulting San Mateo County past Manhattan in terms of wealth, and as I’ll try to argue, might be indirectly responsible for the risinghouse prices, increased traffic, transit strikes, and bespoke apps Bay Area residents enjoy today. The rent is, indeed, too damn high.
Let me state upfront that I am not blaming Facebook, insiders, or investors. In fact, all actors acted rationally within their rights. Facebook is just one shining example of a trend where the technology sector is the real growth-sector of an American economy which has barely withstood two separate economic recessions within a few years of each other. As a result of money flowing into private technology equities and combined with the restrictions imposed by SOX, new technology companies have enjoyed more access to private capital and have thus been able to remain private longer. While SOX was originally designed to protect the public from “the next Enron,” the unintended consequences of such restrictive legislation dampened the appetite of private shareholders and investors to tap public markets too soon. Unfortunately, one of the most harmful consequences of SOX can be seen through the story of Facebook’s IPO and the wealth that it generated — mostly residing in San Mateo County.
When wealth is created but concentrated in certain ZIP codes, both local areas and the nation’s economy is affected. It all has a cascading effect. With more wealth locked into San Mateo and surrounding counties, the demand for assets rises quickly. House prices skyrocket. Individuals who don’t have enough cash reserved for a down-payment are forced to rent, where competition for rental property creates its own endless race. Contractors rush to meet housing demand, springing up buildings in a boom-time that create noise pollution and closed streets and blocked highway on-ramps, which combines with more and more warm bodies flocking to the Bay Area for the shot to work in the one sector that provides any hope for real, sustainable economic growth. This is why — in large part because of SOX — that your rent is high, why there’s so much traffic and construction, and why it won’t change anytime soon.
There are many, many reasons a great number of people would benefit if private companies operated in an environment where restrictions wouldn’t dissuade shareholders and investors from accessing public markets earlier. Entrepreneurs and investors would have an attractive exit option earlier in their life cycle; entrepreneurs wouldn’t have to rely on “build and shut down” acquisitions to get an exit; employees and insiders wouldn’t feel as much pressure to access liquidity through secondary offerings; wealth-creation would be more spread out and could generate even more jobs; and retail investors would have an equal chance to invest into the next Facebook when its valuation is, say, around a billion dollars versus when its $100B. For a bit of perspective, Google IPO’d after raising a relatively modest amount of venture capital, and Microsoft IPO’d at a $500M valuation — in these cases, the wealth created post-IPO was spread out and technically available to all who could invest in public markets.
Scott Kupor, a Managing Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, wrote a strong piece artfully detailing this view, suggesting over-regulation effectively blocks the entire middle class from participating in the massive wealth creation driven by technological advancement. Over the years, USV’s Fred Wilson has written many great posts on this topic, discussing the nuances of going public early, how public markets can have a harmful effect on company culture, and how potentially distortive the IPO process can be relative to true company value.
OK, so there’s my analysis and argument. I expect many will disagree with my assessment of SOX being the root cause of this, and there are indeed many strong cases to be made that companies should remain private longer. I also believe this is a structural change in the Bay Area — not a cyclical one. It’s easy to dismiss this and say “it’s a bubble” or “this is just cyclical,” but the fact of the matter is that this wealth has been generated and is now kept in the Bay Area — it’s not going away.
Given this, what should folks in the Bay Area technology and startup sectors expect as a result? Eventually, yes, more affordable and micro-unit housing will come on the market, but there’s barely enough transportation infrastructure to handle the increase this will create. In the meantime, here’s what I think we should all anticipate. First, naturally, asset prices will increase, creating all sorts of inflationary pressures, especially on rental inventory. Second, founders should expect to pay even higher wages for talent, and investors should expect founders will want to raise more money as a result. Third, I suspect more and more people will opt to not commute between the Valley and San Francisco as rubbernecking will only increase, so big tech companies will build satellite offices to retain their talent. More private capital will continue to find its way to the Valley in an economy where technology is the only viable growth sector. While I believe things will get sorted out in the Bay Area in the long-term, the immediate term situation currently is and will continue to be disruptive to many. This is just the beginning.
I am not sure what “direct” solutions exist given the limitations of government’s response time. I personally like to see interest in new models emerging as a byproduct of these challenges, many born through frustration and resulting in creative solutions. I enjoy the national conversation around ridesharing and private transportation ignited as a result of the BART strike. I welcome the debate around private shuttle busses ferrying technology workers in and out of a region that can’t provide reliable transportation on its own. I want to see more conversation about the balance between landlord and tenant rights, and to see assets shared according to supply and demand. I hope the economic demand drawing people here will pressure zoning laws to loosen and bring more inventory to market. I want the sharing economy to strengthen inside the fabric of standard economic activity. There will continue to be ideas and realities that irk residents, but this type of “indirect” experimentation is the only way to arrive at a sustainable solution. The region and its entrepreneurs are responding by bringing new products and services to market, and thankfully, are not asking for permission first. The way I see things, this is the only path. Buckle up!
Earlier today, I wrote kind of a mean tweet about Facebook. In retrospect, it wasn’t fair and a bit over the top — I got up at 6am and had a huge coffee and wasn’t careful with my words. Anyway, my tone obscured the meat of my argument, which is that my observation of Facebook’s “in-stream” ads on the web were really bad, as in, really irrelevant to me. See the picture above. The problem for me is that serving me ads based on my friends’ “Likes” is problematic, even for the best algorithms, because those signals are either stale, not tuned well, not dynamic, and not implicit. Yes, I know the Open Graph was going to help solve this, but with things like PRISM, SnapChat, and mobile devices which unbundle every piece of Facebook, I’m not sure that promise will be fulfilled.
In a nutshell, Facebook excites me because it’s relevant — to me. I’m on it every day. I converse with friends all the time. I enjoy it. I want Facebook to be really good. I don’t mind getting ads on Facebook. In fact, I want to know what products and places and things my friends truly like. That carries weight with me. On the right-rail in Facebook, those ads often make sense because I’m sure Facebook is tracking other pages I visit. Fine by me. What I’m talking about are the big sponsored stories and other posts that appear larger in my feed or as roosters — they’re completely irrelevant, largely because Facebook’s algorithm probably gives too much weight to my friends explicit “Likes.” Some have pointed out that Facebook’s ads are tuned to maximize revenue — which is fine, I get that — but I’ve yet to been served an ad that is interesting. Maybe I’m an outlier. I guess it comes down to revenues versus relevance. Some worship all of Facebook’s data-driven decision-making and want the algorithms to generate the highest revenue based on clicks, while others (like me) want the ads to be more relevant, because at its core, Facebook is about me — it’s all of my relevance rolled into one network. Anyway, I thought I’d explain my rationale in a more collegial manner than before. Thanks for reading.
P.S. I’ve been thinking about what I’d like Facebook to build, products that would be useful to me. I realize Facebook has their own plan. But, hey, they’re in more of a pickle than I am….Here is my wishlist:
UPDATE * * Gifting (Physical Goods): I just became a dad. I’m usually the one to keep in good touch with people, but forget birthdays. A lot of people have asked me for my physical address to send a gift. I’ve done the same. I’d love for this to happen through Facebook. I realize I can send // My friend just pointed out that Facebook already has physical gifts. I had no clue. See here. Perhaps Karma integration. This great, I hope it expands!
Recommendations: If some of my friends have been to a restaurant or other place, even just talking about it, I’d love for Facebook to grab that implicit data (just like Google reads my emails) and serve both ads and recommendations to me. Yes, show me that five of my friends went to the new beer garden in Mountain View. Yes, please. That’s what I want.
One-Click Purchase Outside Facebook.com: I order a bunch of things online, just like everyone else. I’d love to just hit a FB-branded “Buy” button and have it automatically know my credit card, address, identity, etc.
Photo Prints: Again, being a new dad means a lot of folks want physical pictures. I’ve already used a service to upload and send them. This is the core of Facebook — photos — and I know families would be all over the auto-sharing in real objects, making books, etc. It’s simple stuff but constantly reinforces the brand in the real world.
Politics: This is the big one. I’ve always felt U.S. politics will only change when people can vote from their mobile devices. In order for that to happen, laws need to change — FB has power. Second, our identities need to be tied to our phones and verified. Facebook can do this. Combine these items and the resultant mix could be potent, both politically and financially. Social networks have already help citizens in other countries organize, and I see no reason why Facebook couldn’t have that power in the U.S.